Friday, 25 April 2008

Education, education and education

When Tony Blair was standing for election he famously said that his three main priorities would be education, education and education. Thankfully none of the party leaders made such a commitment in Northern Ireland. Education and the future arrangements for academic selection caused ill tempered exchanges in the Assembly Chamber and considerable press comment this week – but we remain nowhere near a resolution.

The Education Minister, Caitriona Ruane, wrote to Lumen Christi, the Catholic grammar school which announced its intention to set its own entrance exam, and its feeder schools to warn them of the consequences of essentially ‘opting out’ of Department endorsed transfer arrangements. The pro grammar school lobby, the Association for Quality Education has announced that 31 grammar schools are to press ahead with forming a company to run their own common entrance exam. It is understood the new company may outsource the test from England or develop a new exam based on the Northern Ireland curriculum. It will finalise firm plans for the new test by June. The exam will be taken for the first time in 2010 if no alternative selection method is proposed by the government in the interim.

Ms Ruane was also under attack from primary school teachers for failing to narrow the funding gap between primary schools and post primary schools.

Who runs Northern Ireland?

There was drama aplenty at this week's Employment and Learning Committee regarding the proposed merger between Stranmillis teaching college and Queen's University. Members' voiced their 'disgust' at the treatment of the Committee by the colleges, regarding a lack of notice and consultation. A merger claimed last week to be a 'done deal' by Stranmillis seems anything but.

The requirement for legislation to go through the Assembly to enact the merger seems to have been a small fact both Queen's and Stranmillis disregarded/forgot about in their discussions. All Members expressed their concern about voting through any such legislation - unionist members due to the prospect of the ending of the 'protestant ethos' of Stranmillis and nationalist members because of the bleak prospects for the future of St Mary’s teaching college, if the merger goes ahead.

The Department of Employment and Learning’s claims that the merger came as a complete shock to them seems somewhat off the mark. On the morning of the merger decision, senior DEL officials briefed Stranmillis and Queen's on how the Department would finance the merger!

Several Assembly questions have been tabled on the matter, specifically on what the Minister, Sir Reg Empey, knew and when. Considering he maintains that he knew nothing, it would seem that this matter is far from over. Either the Minister did know and was ‘economical with the actualité’ or his top civil servants were keeping him in the dark about their plans.

There is more to life than the Assembly

Those of us who follow the goings on up at the Assembly need to remind ourselves that its powers are limited and the ‘man on the street’ has many other concerns. Some of those concerns are Westminster matters – such as the abolition of the 10p income tax bracket. This move would have impacted particularly heavily on NI but our politicians took the safe option of opposing it – safe in the knowledge they could always blame the Labour Government. Another concern for the ‘man in the street’ is beyond the control of Stormont and Westminster. The dramatic increase in gas prices prompted local politicians to rush to the airwaves to talk about seeing what they could do to alleviate the problem for the less well off and the elderly. In reality the answer is not a lot.

Ministers at Stormont would be right to be concerned about these developments. increasing taxes from Westminster on people and small businesses and rising prices for food as well as energy the decision to delay the introduction of a water element to local rates bills might come back to haunt the Executive. When the increased rates bills ultimately land on peoples doorsteps during these leaner economic times there will be uproar. Prior to that expect to see a lot of MLAs seeking to distance themselves from the Executive. Might this provide the opportunity for the UUP and the SDLP to detach themselves from the Executive?

It is unlikely that the two UUP Ministers in the Executive – who will be 62 and 63 come the next Assembly election - will lead their party into opposition. But might the SDLP (or should that be Fianna Fail?) seize the opportunity? The SDLP could seek to lay the blame for the new bills firmly at the door of Conor Murphy and Sinn Féin. Such a move might put ‘clear water’ between the two parties and surely, after the merger, the party will not be as financially dependent on the Assembly as it is now?

Parades Commission to be abolished

The review of parading chaired by Lord Paddy Ashdown is expected to recommend councils and the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister should take over from the Parades Commission. The report, which is expected to be made public next week, favours splitting the processes of mediation and ruling when a parades dispute cannot be resolved.

Fred Cobain signals intention to rebel

Speaking at a Conference on devolution, Fred Cobain, the UUP North Belfast MLA and Chairperson of the Regional Development Committee, repeatedly criticised the current devolved arrangements. He claimed that they were designed for the situation as existed 10 years ago, attacked elements of the Programme for Government, repeatedly said there needed to be an Opposition and clearly said that he would not vote in favour of charging for water.

One assumes the UUP, as part of the Executive, will attempt to ‘whip’ its members in to supporting the Executive’s policy? If they do, Mr Cobain is clearly not for following his party’s whip.